France seeks to withdraw legitimacy from the Tripoli government

Paris must face challenge of convincing Russia, US.
Friday 05/06/2020
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (L) arrive for a joint press conference in Ankara, June 4. (Reuters)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (L) arrive for a joint press conference in Ankara, June 4. (Reuters)

TUNIS - The European annoyance at Washington’s obstruction of the decision to appoint a new international envoy in Libya has reflected the gap between France’s approach to the crisis in Libya and the United States’ hesitation to side with either of the rivals in the Libyan conflict.

An Arab diplomatic source familiar with the situation told The Arab Weekly that the French had already made up their minds about the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, and that they would seek a UN Security Council resolution withdrawing the so-called “international legitimacy” from the GNA. He said that the new international envoy's mission would be to find an inclusive and binding formula for all parties in the conflict instead of the expired Skhirat Agreement, which has technically been invalid since December 2017.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source added that the stiff tone of Wednesday’s presidential statement was primarily directed at the GNA, since they were the side that openly invited Turkish military intervention in Libya and signed the agreements for military cooperation, demarcation of maritime borders, and oil and gas exploration.

On Wednesday, the French presidency expressed its “deep concern” over the situation in Libya, fearful of an agreement between Turkey and Russia that “serves their interests” at the expense of Libya’s interest.

The following day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after meeting with GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Istanbul, said that both sides had agreed on maritime cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean, referring to oil and gas exploration off Libya’s western coast.

For his part, Sarraj said: “We look forward to a near return of Turkish companies to rebuild Libya.”

Libyan Member of Parliament Abu Bakr Baira said that Sarraj’s visit to Turkey at this particular time reflects Turkey’s over eagerness for further penetration inside Libya, and this despite the Libyan refusal and the increasing regional and international protests against the Turkish role inside Libyan territory.

Speaking to The Arab Weekly from Libya by phone, Baira did not exclude the possibility that Sarraj’s visit to Turkey was related to recent developments on the ground in the vicinity of the capital, Tripoli, especially after the withdrawal of Libyan National Army (LNA) units from the fronts south of Tripoli, specifically from Tripoli Airport, Ain Zara and Wadi Al-Rabi`.

The Arab diplomatic source explained that “the GNA understands the seriousness of its position, and that is why it sent a delegation to Moscow, because it became convinced that the French build-up against it in the Security Council would be effective, especially with the availability of Germany’s support and a change in the Italian position.”

The United States confirmed on Wednesday that it was waiting for the formation of an “empowered” UN mission to Libya, a stance that annoyed France and Germany, which insisted that any delay in approving the appointment of an envoy undermines efforts to end the conflict.

Politically, France supports the LNA's war on terror led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. France’s position was evident through its obstructing European decisions condemning Haftar. Paris is also accused by Islamists of providing military support to the army, which Paris of course denies.

By multiplying its efforts, France wants to withdraw the Libyan file from Turkish and Russian hands, especially that there are persistent rumours about a deal between the latter two countries on sharing influence in Libya and ignoring the international community.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and France's President Emmanuel Macron talk at Berlin conference on Libya, last January. (AFP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and France's President Emmanuel Macron talk at Berlin conference on Libya, last January. (AFP)

Signs of such a deal emerged following the success of the GNA militias, with the help of the Syrian mercenaries, to take control early this Thursday of Tripoli’s entire administrative borders.This development came just days after it was reported that Russia was withdrawing its weapons and military experts from the battle fronts that were controlled by the LNA south of Tripoli.

Reports spoke of the Russian weapons being moved to Al-Jafra military base in the centre of the country, and that Russia would use these weapons only if the oil terminals or the cities of eastern Libya were attacked by GNA militias.

For its part, the US has expressed concern over what appeared to be a tacit Turkish-Russian agreement that will open the gates for direct Russian military intervention in Libya. But the same US had shown a dubious silence about Turkey’s direct military intervention in Libya, especially the transfer of extremists and fighters from Idlib to Tripoli, which was interpreted as blessing these moves.

Thanks to Turkey’s military intervention, the United States has removed the spectre of a longterm Russian presence in all of Libya, as Russia is an important ally of the LNA. But for now at least, the Russian threat is confined to the south, east and centre of the country.

It is clear that the United States is betting on Turkey and its proxies in Libya to persuade Russia to refrain from pursuing its ambition of being directly present in the country, by enticing it with reconstruction and oil and gas exploration deals, in addition to paying off the entirety of Libya’s debt to Russia, which amounts to some $7 billion.

In the event that these attempts were successful, the United States would have removed Russia as a potential rival in North Africa, and could, therefore, turn its attention to ending the ambitions of France, which is one of its main competitors in Libya and Africa in general.

This explains the diplomatic wrangling between France and the United States in Libya. In light of this background, recovering the port and city of Sirte from the Libyan army is expected to be one of the top US priorities during the coming period.

Observers point out that these diplomatic quarrels are not new, as they began with the appointment of Stephanie Williams as charge d'affaires at the US embassy, ​​and a few months after the appointment of former UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame, who was perceived as biased towards France.

Many attribute Salame’s resignation to the pressures exerted by Stephanie Williams, through her moves that marginalised his role and imposed the vision of the US State Department, Britain and, to a lesser extent, Italy, which is all in the interest of the Islamists in Libya.

In addition to American intransigence, France is expected to face a Russian rejection of its proposal, in the midst of increasing rumours of Moscow's plan to revive the Libyan Parliament in Tobruk and have it give a legitimate cover to its intervention in Libya.

The parliament, which was elected in 2014 for a term of one year only, derives its legitimacy from the Skhirat Agreement, but the divisions inside it made it all but completely dead. It has failed more than once during the last period to achieve quorum for a full session.

The Skhirat Agreement was signed in December 2015 and brought the Islamists, who had lost the parliamentary elections, back to power.

The Islamists continue to refuse to hold new legislative and presidential elections and have tried over the past year to reproduce the experience of the Skhirat Agreement, which was rejected by Parliament and the army and prompted them to launch the campaign for the takeover of Tripoli.

The Islamists are accused of seeking to impose compromises to their measure, with vital institutions and sovereign ministries under their control.